Episode 74: Christmas in 1950s and 60s London

Episode 74: Christmas in Post War London

London is a bright and eventful place all year round, but especially during the build-up to Christmas. Streets and squares fill up with elaborate light installations that transform urban spaces while changing their atmosphere for Christmas time!

Join Hazel Baker as she looks at how the tradition of London’s Christmas Street lights began and evolved and became fixed within children’s literature.

Christmas in Post War London

Other Christmas-related podcast episodes:

Episode 98: Christmas Puddings Throughout History

Episode 75: The Christmas Cracker – a Victorian Invention

Episode 74: Christmas in 1950s and 1960s London

Episode 35: A Tudor Christmas

Episode 34: London’s oldest shops food and drink

Show Notes:

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 

London is a bright and eventful place all year round, but especially during the build-up to Christmas. Streets and squares fill up with elaborate light installations that transform urban spaces while changing their atmosphere for Christmas time!

But as well as being a dazzling spectacle, the history of Christmas in London, including its light displays, can shed light on the shifting relationships between Borough councils, corporations and Londoners.

This week I am taking you back to Christmas time in post-war London.


Let’s start with Christmas in 1954

Christmas time in 1954 London doesn’t sound like it was too different from today.

In a Londoner Notebook by Carteret in the West London Observer, he likens facing the immense crowds in the West End as “something like going into battle”. I have never seen so many people in the streets or in the shops before – nor so much money changing hands over the counters.”

While I have never been a fan of crowded streets, I give the Notting Hill festival a wide berth, I must admit I did giggle at the attempt of problem solving for one of his friends though: “A friend who tried to sneak into one store via the hardware basement found hundreds of other people had the same idea. He got stuck in a queue on the stairs for 20 minutes – and never even saw a present more interesting than a washing bowl.” Perhaps the next Christmas he learned to do his Christmas shopping a little earlier?

© Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London


There’s a charming article in the West Sussex Gazette which describes the Christmas Scene in London (from a London correspondent).

“Not for many years has London achieved quite such an atmosphere of plenty, prosperity and dazzle. He or she who can resist the gaiety of the great coloured lanterns of Regent Street, the twinkling lights of the decorated thoroughfares, the dancing dolls and tinsel shining of the animated displays, has got to be very churlish indeed.”

Apparently there were those who were already complaining about the over consumer-led focus of Christmas:

“All of us have probably enjoyed a grumble over the “commercialisation” of Christmas, but now that the season is almost here, something about the fun and the sparkle strikes as freshly as real, old-fashioned magic”

London enjoyed a number of Christmas trees as gifts:

“There are the trees given to St. Paul’s Cathedral by the Queen from Sandringham, the great tree in Trafalgar Square which is Oslo’s gift to the people of London, and the tree which looks out from the porch of the church of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields.”

There was also a Christmas tree on the South Bank, between the Royal Festival Hall and the National Film Theatre.

Covent Garden fully embraces Christmas and it seems to have done so back then too but then it was still a fruit and vegetable market:

“…in the maze and clatter of Covent Garden market. The scene of a few days ago was of such terrific activity that it was hard for the mere sightseer to move along the giant’s tangle of lorries, vans, barrows and monumental displays of all the fruits and vegetables of the earth. Great piles of onions packed in bags resembling fishing nets neighboured golden sculptured of oranges and grape fruit, tangerines and bananas; incredible crates of symmetrical cauliflowers from Italy and France rubbed edges with titanic containers of lettuces enough to feed a world of vegetarians – and the eye gave up trying to reach the heights of the potatoes. But perhaps the jolliest sight was the great enclosures of Christmas trees, looking like uprooted forests, and smelling deliciously of fir and wet, country earth. Holly, then, was fetching the high and curious market price of 2s. a pound. It is scarce this year, but there is plenty of mistletoe, from France.




Eating in the 50s
Eating in the 50s

Christmas Markets weren’t a thing back then but there were kerbside markets, something that is a dwindling presence in London now:

“In the little streets of the kerbside markets, they are piled stalls of Christmas trees small enough to be comfortably tucked under an arm, and taken home to decorate. The gaiety of the street markets is traditional. They have come out this year in a decorative dazzle of silver, gilded and coloured leaves and twigs. The dyed or luminous leaf is an effective substitute for holly under the bright lights of barrows packed with “bargains” in everything from food and toys to lengths of nylon, wireless parts, outsize “pearls,” monster balloons, new and chipped china, and second-hand books.”


London Transport

Lost Property

Lost property on the tube in the final hectic days before Christmas consisted of “Christmas puddings and turkeys, bottles of whiskey, boxes of chocolates and presents, from earrings to pairs of braces” Oh, and a skeleton, don’t worry, it was a plastic one.”


Special Christmas “light-seeing” bus service

London Transport’s Christmas “light-seeing” bus service – route 7L – started in November and was altered to also take in the Regent Street lights and the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree. The open-top service ran from Marble Arch, along Oxford Street and Regent Street and then into Trafalgar Square via Piccadilly Circus and Haymarket and was scheduled at frequent intervals between 5.30pm and 10pm until 6 January, with the exception on Christmas Day. London buses still don’t run on Christmas Day.  There were specially marked bus stops along the route.  And the price for such a round trip of a seasonal spectacle? A flat rate of 20p for adults and 10p for children. The service was run by London Transport in conjunction with Debenhams on Oxford Street.

Carteret describes a scene on a London bus. A ticket inspector is making his way along the bus “Tickets, please. Have your tickets ready, please.” He approaches a small boy, aged about six, sitting alone on an end seat. “Got your ticket, sonny?” The boy looks down at his feet and says nothing. “Got your ticket, sonny?” (A little louder this time.) The boy blushes. Slowly he puts both hands in his jacket pockets and withdraws a mass of assorted bus tickets from each. He pulls a further wad from his trouser pocket. The ticket inspector smiled. “That’s all right sonny” he says. “You keep ’em!” Now, that is what I call Christmas Spirit.


London’s Christmas Lights

For decades, London has been displaying its Christmas lights and decorations throughout the busy commercial world-famous shopping streets. The display of this tradition is now considered an integral part in preparing for what’s expected to be another successful holiday season by many!


When and where were the first London Christmas Lights?

Well, that’s why I have brought you back to London in 1954. The tradition began in 1954, on Regent Street, when local retailers and businesses – through the Regent Street Association responded to an article in the Daily Telegraph commenting on how drab London looked at Christmas. They arranged and paid for an illuminated light display across Regent Street. Post-war London needed a tonic and a touch of sparkle seemed to do the trick.

It didn’t take long for Oxford Street to join in with the festive sparkle. The first Oxford Street Christmas display was in 1959. However, the first Oxford Street Illuminations, as they were initially called, that stretched across Oxford Street, were first switched on in 1960. There’s a black and white photo in The Sphere showing huge illuminated baubles, a design we would call nowadays vintage, I suppose.  These humongous baubles were coloured in various shades of red, gold and blue.

A photo in The Sphere Magazine, 1961, shows huge illuminated baubles along Oxford Street with two lanes of cars bumper to bumper. The pavements are crammed with pedestrians walking past shop signs such as Berkertex and F W Woolworth & Co.


Light Switching on Ceremonies – the Celebrity sparkle

Adding a touch of celebrity sparkle to the lights with a switching-on ceremony created a lot of buzz and PR chatter but this didn’t become a thing until the 1980s. Big names to push the button in the past have included Kylie Minogue (Regent Street 1989 and Oxford Street 2015), Cliff Richard in (Oxford Street 1990), the Spice Girls (Oxford Street 1996), and Ronan Keating (1999). I’m sure to many the chance of seeing a celebrity was more of a draw to weather the West-End crowds compared to seeing Mr Stafford Bourne, chairman of Bourne and Hollingsworth who was President of the Oxford Street Association for that is who turned on the Oxford Street illuminations in 1961.


Christmas Drinks

1966 The Tatler aimed to provide solutions to Christmas in London’s problems such as where to park your car, a guide to behaviour at the office Christmas party plus pages of (and I quote) “lively, entertaining reading packed with pictures of London’s young, energetic people (what is everybody drinking, by the way?)”

To answer their question popular drinks would have been:

  1. Babycham, the original party drink that’s brought a touch of fun and sparkle to people’s lives since 1953. It’s a sparkling perry (pear cider) made from perry pears which you can still buy today.
  2. Snowballs were popular during the winter. Snowballs are made with Advocaat, lime juice and sparkling lemonade) and named from its frothy white foam dome.
  3. Port and lemon, a shot of ruby poured over ice, let down with fizzy lemonade and served with a slice of lemon, a popular special occasion drink associated with the archetypal street-corner pub.


Luxury Coach Shopping Weekend Trips to London

Quickly, the lights grew to be a key part of London’s festive calendar which prompted a new kind of visit to London: The Christmas Experience Shopper.

Shopping, Christmas Lights, London room, cabaret, meal, dancing, Petticoat Lane, Tour of London £45

Christmas shopping & Lights London Weekend

2 nights B&B Olympia Hilton Hotel, Kensington

Luxury return coach travel

Free excursion to Wembley Market

3 day and 2 night shopping trip Ibis Hotel, Euston plus breakfast and a visit Petty Coat Lane Market departing Dec 14 from Tayside, Angus and Fife by luxury coach. Cost £65

Going to the theatre remains a treat that hundreds of thousands of Brits do during the festive season. Yes, the Victorians may have contributed to this tradition with the re-invention of the pantomime but it wasn’t just pantomime audiences flocked to see. Variety shows were hugely popular and there was no other grander than that of The Royal Variety Performance.

The origins of the Royal Variety Performance date back to 1912, when His Majesty King George V and Her Majesty Queen Mary agreed to attend a ‘Royal Command Performance’ at the Palace Theatre in London’s Cambridge Circus (it’s where Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is on now). By 1961 the Royal Variety Performance was at The Prince of Wales Theatre on Coventry Street, near Leicester Square where A Book of Mormon is on now).

The 1961 show was attended by HM Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother. The compere was Bruce Forsyth. Better known to modern audiences as a TV presenter, but having been a jobbing performer on the variety circuit himself had a brilliant way with the audience. In the 1961 show he managed to upstage Sammy Davis Junior with his impression of the American star. Davis appeared in a dancing scene with Lionel Blair. This was also the night where the fabulous Shirley Bassey made her Royal Variety debut.

There is a generally accepted rule among artistes appearing in the Royal Variety Show that the Royal Box is not addressed directly. It was the 1961 performance where this was disregarded. A traffic warden comes onto the stage and announces there was a car blocking a side street outside the theatre. He begins to read the registration number out “HRH”. Bruce clasps his hand over the traffic warden’s mouth. You can’t say that! Music hall and vaudeville entertainer Bud Flanagan comes onto the stage to assist. He carefully treads across the stage over to the Royal Box then looking up at the Queen Mother he says, “Throw us the keys down, Mam, and we’ll move it for you.”

Unbeknown to Her Majesty, someone stationed behind the box threw a bunch of keys on to the stage. The Royal Variety is televised which means you can watch past performances including the 1961 show.

Christmas Lights in Literature

Released in 1968, Paddington Goes to Town. Mr. Brown takes the family to see the Christmas lights. Paddington is so enthralled he doesn’t notice that the crowd have mistaken him for a busker’s assistant and are busy filling his hat with money. Things nearly turn nasty when the police arrive but Mr. Gruber comes to Paddington’s rescue and everyone goes home happy.

See all our Christmas Events including our Christmas Lights WalkA Victorian Christmas and A Christmas Carol walking tour where you can meet Mr Scrooge.

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